It’s 5:30 p.m. on Sunday evening when Pizza Romano owner Alex Palermo pops out of the restaurant’s back kitchen wearing an apron and carrying a bottle full of red, seedy liquid. He’s smiling and slightly sweaty. “It’s hot sauce,” he says, holding up the bottle. “Customers have been asking for it, so I went ahead and made some with Calabrian peppers.”
It’s an apt summary of Palermo’s attitude toward business: If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.
Palermo’s family immigrated to the States when he was a child, but he spent nearly every summer of his life in his home country, and the food he ate while in Italy, all of it fresh, high-quality and made with care, wasn’t as easily found once he was back in the United States.
So in 1992, when he was a senior at Pepperdine University, Palermo launched a fresh-pasta company as a school business project. What started as a late-night operation with a rented pasta machine went on to become a pasta line stocked at Gelson’s and local restaurants, then slowly evolved into Divine Pasta Company. The company grew to include multiple kitchens and storefronts selling takeout pastas and eventually sauces. The company’s move into the pizza market some years later brought it both domestic and international success. Divine Pasta Company and Pizza Romana products are distributed to thousands of retailers in 57 countries, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in the United States.
“We’re doing things the way they were done in your grandmother’s kitchen,” Palermo says. “The Nestlés of the world are trying to figure out what butter fat can taste like if you add guar gums and oils. We don’t do things like that. We go to the original recipes and use incredible ingredients.”
Angelenos can order Palermo's fresh pastas and pizzas at Pizza Romana, the family-style restaurant he opened last year. Before then, the space was Cube Café & Marketplace, Palermo’s first venture into the restaurant world. Though he was proud of the Cube concept, he says Divine Pasta’s new commitment to pizza gave him a fresh focus.
“There was so much buzz around pizza, but I wasn’t satisfied with how it was being portrayed,” Palermo says. “I wanted to put together a concept that showed off what I truly believe great pizza is.”
And he wanted to do that at a reasonable price point. Pizzas fired on a rotating Morello Forni oven come out with an airy, billowing crust and are priced from $8 to $14. The basil on your margherita pizza might come from the rooftop garden above company headquarters in the Arts District. The dough was fermented for 24 hours or longer, as it would be in many shops in Rome. Other ingredients were likely sourced from Italy. Think San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella from Lazio. Sides of roasted broccolini, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other seasonal greens are $5.
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The wine storage room at Pizza Romana houses a vast collection of boutique Italian labels priced at $20 and up. “Wine is an absolute right of the meal in Italian culture, but so many restaurants treat it like a luxury,” Palermo says. “Our markups and margins aren’t wild; I don’t believe in that.”
Palermo recently imported his cousin, experienced sommelier Emanuele Rizzo, from Rome to join the Pizza Romana crew. Rizzo is happy to help select the best bottle to go with your prosciutto-and-arugula–topped pizza. He’s also likely to chat with you about daily life in Rome or sell you on the shop’s gelati — those come straight from Italy, too. Sour cherry, pistachio, stracciatella and hazelnut were among recent flavor options.
“Emanuele shares my passion for wine and the rest of our products,” Palermo says. “Ultimately, we want people to come to Pizza Romana and feel that, from top to bottom, there is a high value to what they are getting. It’s a work in progress, as all of my projects are. But I think we’ve found a great identity."
Pizza Romana, 615 N. La Brea Ave., Fairfax; (323) 939-1148 ext. 10, pizzaromana.com.